To identify factors that regulate gut microbiota density and the impact of varied microbiota density on health, we assayed this fundamental ecosystem property in fecal samples across mammals, human disease, and therapeutic interventions. Physiologic features of the host (carrying capacity) and the fitness of the gut microbiota shape microbiota density. Therapeutic manipulation of microbiota density in mice altered host metabolic and immune homeostasis. In humans, gut microbiota density was reduced in Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and ileal pouch-anal anastomosis. The gut microbiota in recurrent Clostridium difficile infection had lower density and reduced fitness that were restored by fecal microbiota transplantation. Understanding the interplay between microbiota and disease in terms of microbiota density, host carrying capacity, and microbiota fitness provide new insights into microbiome structure and microbiome targeted therapeutics.